In late May, we organised a trip for seven Trees for Life staff, plus eight other people from Scottish conservation organisations (including one of our board members) to southwest Norway. We flew over to Stavanger and were met there by Duncan Halley, a Scotsman who has lived in Norway for about 20 years, working for NINA, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, and who had very generously offered to be our guide for the week we’d be there.
We arrived in Stavanger in mid-morning and left the airport in a convoy of four rented cars for our first destination – the Månafossen waterfall and Fidjadalen Valley above it, about an hour’s drive to the east. The route took us through Frafjord and eventually we reached a small car park beside a river, where the trail to the waterfall began. There we were met by Audun Steinnes, from the Environment Department of Rogaland, the Norwegian county where the area is located.
He had brought a lot of maps and other information with him, and gave us some background details about the area before we began the hike uphill.
We’d come to Norway to visit sites of healthy montane scrub and naturally-regenerating native woodland, to gain inspiration and draw experience from what has happened in southwest Norway during the past century or so. In that time, what had been a completely deforested and depleted landscape at the beginning of the 20th century has recovered, in the absence of the excessive numbers of large herbivores (red deer and sheep) that we have in Scotland, to become an overwhelmingly naturally-forested region again.
We’d come to this area initially because the forest in Fidjadalen is still relatively young and the landscape is very similar to places in the northwest of Scotland, in terms of the soils, rainfall and climate. As we were to see though, there is a profound difference from Scotland with regard to tree cover.
The trail up to the waterfall is very steep, with metal steps fixed in some places to the rock face we were climbing, and chains attached to metal stanchions to hold on to in some other parts. It was quite arduous going, as we were carrying everything we’d need to stay for two nights in the converted farmhouse that was to be our base for the next couple of days. Thus, by the time we reached the waterfall, we were happy to take a break, although we hadn’t yet gone a great distance.
It was a spectacular place to spend a few minutes, catching our breath and continuing the conversations we’d started down at the car park. The waterfall itself pours through a cleft in the rock from the valley above and drops a vertical distance of 92 metres, creating substantial amounts of spray as it falls. While we were there, the sun came out momentarily, and we got the briefest glimpse of a rainbow, caused by the water droplets from all the spray …
Up above the falls, the trail levelled out as came into the Fidjadalen valley itself, leading towards the old converted farmhouse building at Mån where we would be staying.
This was very similar to parts of Dundreggan, where we have birch-juniper woodland, some of it more mature than this area, but others where the trees are of a comparable age to these. I had always thought that Dundreggan was somehow exceptional in Scottish terms, because there is relatively little juniper in the northwest Highlands, and it’s often considered to be too wet for much juniper to flourish there. However, seeing juniper so abundant here at Fidjadalen, led me to think differently, and that Dundreggan is perhaps an example of how juniper should be much more plentiful in the northwest Highlands.
I was struck by the difference in scale between the landscapes I’m used to in Scotland and what we were seeing here. Not only was the Månafossen waterfall larger than most waterfalls in Scotland, but Fidjadalen itself was very impressive, with its steep-sided glacier-carved walls and sheer rock faces. It reminded me of Yosemite Valley in California, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, with its dramatic topography being the legacy of repeated sculpting by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Ages.
As we walked along, I was struck by how young all the trees were – none of them seemed like they were more than perhaps 30 years old.
This was a major difference to Scotland, for although we don’t have much native woodland left, where remnants do occur, they usually consist of old trees, supporting lots of lichens and mosses, and with a comparatively rich understorey. I noticed there were very few flowering plants visible – wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) was the only species I saw, whereas in Scotland a woodland like this would have had primroses (Primula vulgaris) and dog violets (Viola riviniana) blossoming alongside the wood sorrel.
Heading further into the valley, a number of questions arose for me. I had observed, for instance, that there were no alder trees (Alnus glutinosa) visible anywhere, whereas in Scotland they would have been abundant along the banks of the river. Why was this? I began to wonder if this area had started regenerating in the last century from a condition of virtually complete deforestation, when it was missing old trees and species such as alder, as well as many woodland flowering plants like primroses, and that had resulted in this seemingly biodiverse-poor woodland we were encountering?
Walking further into the valley I could see the young forest on the other, northern side was growing on slopes which were predominantly bare rock, with very thin areas of soil in between. This looked very similar to places I’ve visited in the coastal regions of the northwest Highlands, such as Torridon, except there was a prolific growth of young trees here.
Because of stopping to take photographs along the way, I was one of the last of our group to arrive at the Mån farmhouse. This turf-roofed building was last lived in permanently in 1915, but has been converted into comfortable accommodation for hikers and can sleep over 30 people. We had the building to ourselves for two nights, and once we had settled in, Audun Steinnes left to return home, having been a very informative and useful guide for our walk into the valley.
Just outside the backdoor of the building we were impressed by a large aspen tree (Populus tremula) that was covered in catkins. As aspen rarely flowers in Scotland, this was of considerable interest to us, and as it turned out, was a harbinger of how abundant aspen is in the forests we saw in Norway.
We had the entirety of the next day to explore the Fidjadalen Valley, and we set off eastwards, along a marked footpath on the south side of the river. It proved to be a very wet day however, with near constant rain, so we didn’t get as far as we’d planned. However, it still gave us plenty of opportunity to experience the young forest in the area. From old photos in the farmhouse, and what Audun had told us, we knew that the valley had been treeless when the area was farmed, and that the recovery and regeneration of the forest has only taken place subsequent to its abandonment by people.
In southwest Norway, large scale emigration of people to North America took place from the 1830s onward for about a century. Unlike the notorious Clearances in the Highlands of Scotland, this was a voluntary process, and because of the different system of land ownership in Norway, the departure of the people was not accompanied by a large scale expansion of sheep numbers, as happened in the Highlands. These key differences are what has enabled southwest Norway to become almost entirely naturally-forested again, whereas the Highlands have remained in a highly degraded, overgrazed and mostly treeless condition.
As we walked further into the valley, it was apparent that the recovery of the woodland there had been quite recent, with almost all the trees looking like they were no more than 30-40 years old. Downy birch predominated, although there were occasional rowans (Sorbus aucuparia), a few willows (Salix spp.) and good numbers of aspen. Higher up the slopes, some of our group also encountered significant patches of twinflower (Linnea borealis), a beautiful flowering plant that is very rare in Scotland, but abundant in Norway and other boreal forests of the world.
In addition to the relative lack of flowering plants, I also noticed there were few lichens on the trees, compared to what I’m used to in old forest remnants in Scotland, such as Glen Affric.
This reinforced my sense that we were in a young pioneer-stage forest, which was a simplified ecosystem, with a relatively small diversity of species in it. The forest was very extensive, giving the valley a much greater appearance of ecological health than the treeless landscapes of Scotland, but I was surprised by the fact that it appeared to be less species-diverse than our ancient woodland remnants in the Highlands. This gave me an unexpected increased appreciation for the specialness of the small patches of old woodland that we do have left in Scotland.
As we walked through the birch-juniper woodland on the north-facing side of the valley, we came across one species which strengthened the similarity with the birch-juniper woodland at Dundreggan that I mentioned above. This was the ‘tongues of fire’ or rust fungus (Gymnosporangium clavariiforme) that fruits spectacularly on the stems of juniper bushes in the spring each year. This is an interesting species, not only because of its appearance, which takes the form of bright orange ‘fingers’ or ‘tongues’ clustered together on the juniper stems, but also because it has a two host life cycle. It alternates between fruiting like this in the spring on juniper stems, with fruiting again as fungal galls on hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in late summer, which grow from the spores released by fungus in spring.
These galls take the form of orange blisters or swellings on the upper surface of the hawthorn leaves and fruit, and out of them emerge small pointed tufts. They release the fungal spores that then re-infect juniper and give rise to the ‘tongues of fire’ in the following spring, and so the alternating cycle continues. As we have both juniper and hawthorn at Dundreggan, I’ve observed and photographed the two stages of the fungal life cycle there. Here in Fidjadalen though, we didn’t see any hawthorn, and checking with Audun Steinnes had confirmed that there were no hawthorns in the general vicinity at all. This left us with a major mystery – how was the Gymnosporangium clavariiforme fungus able to thrive here in such abundance, in the absence of one of its two host species? Subsequent to returning to Scotland, I’ve quizzed Liz Holden, a mycologist who wrote a species profile about this fungus, and she was unable to provide an answer.
There is another closely related fungus (Gymnosporangium cornutum) that alternates between juniper and rowan, so I asked her if there were any records of Gymnosporangium clavariiforme doing this as well, because there were rowans growing in the forest at Fidjadalen, but it has apparently never been seen on rowans.
Thus we were left with a mystery about this fungus in the forest there!
It was also something of a mystery to me how the forest at Fidjadalen had regenerated spontaneously and seemingly simultaneously over such a large area, when there were no old trees that we saw that could have acted as the seed source for the young ones. The explanation that was offered was that there had been remnant trees left on rocky ledges high on the cliffs of both sides of the valley, and the seeds had been dispersed from there by the wind. While this may be the case, it didn’t satisfy me entirely, and I suspect there must have been other factors at work as well. For instance, although the farm had been disused since 1915, and presumably there had been very few herbivores there since then (we saw no evidence of deer or moose in the area at all), why were the new trees only 30-40 years old, meaning that they must have started growing from about 1980 onwards? Why weren’t there 100 year old trees, that germinated after people left the area when the farm was unoccupied? Perhaps people from lower down, in Frafjord, below the Månafosssen waterfall, still brought their livestock up into Fidjadalen in the summers and that suppressed the growth of any new trees until 1980 or so? Some event or change must have taken place at about that time, which enabled the rapid and seemingly simultaneous regeneration of young woodland through the valley then – I’ll have to make further enquiries about the history of the area to tease out the full story.
After two nights at the Mån farmhouse, we left Fidjadalen and hiked back out to our vehicles for the next part of our trip in Norway. The time there had been very stimulating and informative for all of us, with good conversations about what we’d seen (and what was missing from the forest) in the evenings. It gave us a strong sense of what could happen in the Highlands of Scotland as well, in the way of widespread native forest regeneration, if a similar substantial reduction in large herbivore numbers can be achieved.